June 20, 2014 would go down in history as a memorable day for the people of Benin and advocates for the return of looted Benin artefacts taken during the infamous 1897 British expedition.
The British reportedly stole about 4,000 objects from Benin while some were destroyed during the imbroglio that occurred in 1897. The King of Benin, Oba Ovoranmwen was exiled to Calabar where he later died in 1914. This important return comes on the centennial commemoration of his passing.
I arrived at the Benin Palace at about 10am, two hours before the presentation ceremony was to begin on that fateful day. As I alighted from the car, I could hear Christian choruses blaring from the direction of the harem. It was difficult to reconcile the choruses and the shrines. There was a huge tree tied with red and white cloth with chalk configurations at the entrance to the palace. I later found out that the music was emanating from a music shop located along right behind the palace. I had wondered- in a postmodern and postcolonial society; there could be many possibilities.
The possibility that came to my mind was stretching the imagination too far. As is usual of large events, the palace grounds were filled with several canopies and chairs.
From the quality of chairs under a particular canopy, it was obvious where the distinguished visitors were to sit. From afar, Segun Alile, a popular Edo musician and his band were setting up for the day. Cars were beginning to arrive. All of a sudden a black jeep arrived with armed policemen literally flying out from the doors. The car stopped close to the shelter under which the several wall plaques and cement statuary made by an Edo artist, Ovia Idah were mounted. Very gently, a tall slim ‘Oyinbo’ man, suave and impeccably dressed in a suit alighted from the car accompanied by two other men. This was the man everyone had been waiting to see in Benin, Dr Adrian Mark Walker.
In the past two weeks television stations had been announcing the event of the return. Posters of the event were pasted in front of the palace and around the central part of the city. The last time such an event had occurred in Benin was seventy-eight years ago when the British returned the regalia of Oba Ovoranmwen to Oba Akenzua II in 1936. There were armed police men everywhere- understandably so. Two priceless works of art were about to be unveiled to the pubic. It was difficult to tell if anyone had a different plan.
It was safer to have these fierce looking officers around and about to scare away kidnappers or thieves in a city where the duo gangsters, Lawrence Anini and Osunbor had held sway in the mid 1980s. History was about to be made again with the return of two looted Benin bronze works looted.
Amidst fanfare and emotionally-laden speeches by government functionaries, Edo personalities, the Oba and members of the Benin royal family the guest was heartily welcomed Dr Adrian Mark Walker is a grandson of Captain Herbert Sutherland Walker. His grandfather was not primarily a fighter but was a Special Forces agent, otherwise known as a spy attached to the British Expeditionary forces that conquered Benin.
On seeing the mammoth crowd that had gathered in the Benin palace he remarked to the King ‘I would like to stress how very honoured I feel to be invited here by you and how very humbled I am by the warmth and enthusiasm that my colleagues and I have been given. It makes me feel that this is a very special occasion and not just for me… I was very aware of the importance of this myself but I had no idea that it would cause so much excitement.
Seeing all these proves to me that this is the right thing to do’. He presented the king with two bronze works – a bird (Ahianmwen Oro) and a bell (Egogo) looted by his grandfather. The works had been in the possession of the Walker family since 1897. He also donated a copy of Captain Walker’s war dairy to the king. I would be discussing Adrian Mark Walker’s return in the context of contemporary Benin history as it relates to the restitution of looted Benin artifacts objects. Restitution being the willful return of artifacts that have been looted, or taken by force and had been in possession of an institution, museum or Individual to the rightful owners.
Adrian Mark Walker is the son of Richard Sutherland Walker. Captain Walker, his grandfather, was a specialist in discovering potential enemy strains and had spent many years in East Africa. After the Benin expedition he went off to Ghana to continue with his profession as a spy. As a young boy, Captain Walker was born and had lived in India for thirty-five years. This perhaps gave him the opportunity of living with people of different classes and appreciating them for whom they were. His own father had been a surgeon attached to the Indian army. On his return from his sojourn in Africa, Captain Walker rose to the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel and later became the Chief Constable of Worcestershire until he retired in 1902. He died in 1934 and was buried in a churchyard at Powick, Worcestershire, UK. Adrian Mark Walker is a retired medical doctor. He spent a sizeable part of his childhood in South Africa, having done his primary education in Johannesburg.
After the Sharpeville Massacre, he moved over to England where he studied at Leighton Park, Quaker School in Reading and Cambridge University. He later studied medicine at the Middlesex Hospital in London obtaining a degree in natural sciences from Cambridge. Inspired by the earlier donation of a carved Benin 6 foot tall Benin Ivory tusk his grandmother, Josephine Walker, to the Jos museum, in 1957, Mark Walker believes that the two works should be returned to Benin where they are likely to be of the greatest cultural and historical significance. He narrates a long personal history of how he came to return the Benin objects.
‘These objects have come on a rather long journey. These objects only came into my formal possession recently with the death of my mother. I remember seeing them in my grandmother’s house fifty-five years ago and really coveting them. I thought I would really be proud to own such beautiful objects.
However, as soon as they came into my possession, I realized that if they meant a lot to me because of their connection with my grandfather, they must mean a lot more to the people of the place from where they had come. Before my mother died I took the precaution of asking her if I could take care of them… I knew that she would not consent to my returning them at that stage because she is one from a very materialist generation.
My children, on the other hand, had no such materialist ambition. I was very pleased to be in possession of them because they reminded me of my grandparents. But when I heard from my children that they were not interested in the stuff (Objects), I knew that I had to do something to protect their future’.
I have quoted Walker /in extenso/ to understand and appreciate the commitment Walker has to correct the ills of the past. Paraphrasing would lose the strength of his conviction. It becomes obvious that his urge to make peace overrode his desire to keep the Benin objects for their artistry and links to his family ties.
Furthermore, Mark is convinced that neither his children nor himself would be adversely judged by posterity since he had done the right thing by coming to Benin to return works that were stolen one hundred and seventeen years ago. He remarked ‘I will not be condemned as the grandson of a racist’. He went an extra mile to prove this by extracting excerpts from his grandfather’s diary. Walker remarked that his grandfather was far ahead of his time in the civil manner he referred to Benin natives. Although accounts by ‘white men’ at that time used derogatory words in describing the natives, he on the contrary, had described them as gentlemen as much as his own countrymen and women and showed them milk of human kindness particularly natives at his mercy.
In welcoming Mark Walker to Benin, the Iyase of Benin, Chief Sam Igbe, remarked that by this kind gesture, he has become a friend of the city and would be welcome anytime. More importantly, he added that he was free of age-long curses the Edo people had placed on the looters. The Oba remarked: ‘Walker would now have peace having done what is expected of him’.
The unending debates over Benin looted treasures have thrown up obnoxious theories emanating from the west. Kwame Opoku, a lawyer, known as one of the most vocal advocates for the return of stolen objects to countries of origin has consistently responded to some of these theories. The proponents of a shared and universal heritage acquiesce to the keeping of illegally acquired works in foreign so-called ‘encyclopedic’ or ‘universal’ museums.
Their claim is to keep the art of the world in trust for mankind- a view popular amongst directors and curators of these universal museums. It is important to note that these Universal museums are all located in the Western world. Benson Osadolor, a History lecturer at the University of Benin describes them as the ‘Museums of Loot’ following the ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ signed in 2002.
This concept has become very popular amongst curators of western museums and help propagate and legitimize the continued keeping of looted works. To better appreciate the brazenness of this argument, it is important to quote excerpts from the declaration. ‘Whether (acquired) by purchase, gift or partage- (the artifacts) have become pat of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them’ In other words, since the Benin objects were first looted and then sold to collectors, the buyers of these looted objects now have the right to own them because they have so ‘graciously’ cared for them. Being able to pay for them gives a buyer of stolen objects the right to own them. Additionally, the nations who have acquired these objects or house buyers or museums with illegally acquired objects are now by this declaration free to assimilate the objects as part of their national heritage.
It has been noted that almost all the signatory museums to this preposterous declaration belong to the nation states that signed the final document of the 1884/1885 Berlin Africa Conference.
On the other hand, there are those who argue for works to be retained within their national jurisdictions. They are often referred to as nationalist retentionists. The British government has been constantly reminded of its need to return looted objects.
Nigeria and Greece have been consistently demanding for the return of their objects housed in the British Museum. The Greek’s demand for the Elgin marbles has gone on for a long time, the same way the Benin monarchy have been on the case for the return of their heirloom.
In support of the nationalist retentionist’s position, Walker clearly states ‘I believe the international community is guilty of double standards with regards to such artifacts. When for example at the end of Second World War came, looted works of art were discovered in Nazi home, we went through a great deal of trouble to return them to the families from which they had come. I cannot understand what the difference is between Nazi and looted objects of Benin… If you ask the British Museum they would say ‘well, they are only custodians’. If you ask (British) politicians they say ‘it is the business of the British Museum’.
So, we go round in a circle. We need to persuade not just the British public, but the international community that it is unethical and immoral to be holding on to items which were not legally acquired. To this end I think, this event is important particularly if it achieves publicity not just here but also in Britain.
I am confident that within another generation we should see a lot more of these objects returned to Benin.
While this return has come out of a private collection in the UK, it is pertinent to add that several thousands of looted Benin works still remain in public museums in the UK, Germany and the US.
Soon after the invasion of Benin, the works were first collected in the courtyard of the king from where they were later shipped to Britain. On arrival in London, the Admiralty auctioned them. Later in 1897, the British Museum exhibited well over three hundred bronze plaques loaned from the Foreign Office. Charles Read the curator of the British Museum at the time facilitated the auction of the pieces, which got into several British, and other foreign private and public collections.
Today, a large number of looted Benin works can be seen in the galleries of the British Museum as well as many other museums across Europe and America. Ever since, there has been no return made to Nigeria from the British Museum despite several requests from Nigeria for the objects in their kitty.
In 1977, the British government turned down the request made by the Nigerian Government to loan the popular Queen Idia mask stolen from the bedchamber of the king which later became the symbol of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ‘77) in Lagos.
This mask along with four other similar pectoral masks can be found in the Linden Museum, Stuttgart, The Metropolitan and Seattle Museums in the US and the most popular one at the British Museum. The fifth mask in a private collection surfaced at the Sotheby auction in 2010. After the 1977 request came another, this time on the occasion of the 30^th anniversary commemoration of FESTAC.
In February, 2007 Professor Tunde Babawale, Director of the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBAAC) made a fresh request to the British Museum for the mask. The Director of the British Museum, Neil Mcgregor, glossed over his request replying that the British Museum had been invited by the NCMM to offer assistance and advice on the development of the Lagos Museum.
In the 1950s the British Museum sold a number of Benin art objects to Nigeria. These were purchased to beef up the collection in the newly founded museums. Several attempts at retrieving Nigeria’s stolen art objects have been carried out over the years.
Bernie Grant an MP in the British House of Commons made a request to the Director of the Art Gallery and Museums in Glasgow in 1997. As a follow up to this letter, Emmaneul Arinze, Chairman West African Museums also wrote letters of request for Benin objects. By 2000, Prince Edun Akenzua, the Enogie (Duke) of Obazuwa and brother of the Oba (king) of Benin gave testimony before the British House of Commons.
In 2008, I hand delivered a requet letter from Prince Edun Akenzua to the Art Institute of Chicago. In all of these cases, there has been no response to mail. The lack of response has however not dissuaded people from reacting to this historical injustice.
Fresh requests and responses occur as often as the issues of the looted artifacts resurface. One of such was the sale of Benin artifacts by Sotheby in 2001.A 16^th century Benin ‘Oba’ mask was to be auctioned for about 4.5million pounds sterling. The consignee was a descendant of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Gallwey, Deputy Commissioner and Vice Consul in the Oil Rivers Protectorate in 1891 who took part in the infamous British Expedition.
Protests organized by civil society groups and Nigerian intellectuals against this sale spread from the streets of London to social network sites. The consignee was forced to pull down the work from the auction. It is no longer business as usual to profiteer from the loot – a loot which was forcibly removed during a very bloody contest between British soldiers and Benin defenders.
At another occasion, Nigerians living in Chicago protested in 2007 when news came that the Art Institute was selected as a venue of the travelling exhibition of Benin art titled Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Art from Nigeria.
In 2013, the controversial donation of 32 Benin objects by the Lehman Brothers to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, USA and the Museum’s search for legitimacy from the Benin Royal family caused another stir.
It is important to mention here that the British expeditionary soldiers had a field day picking some of these Benin objects as mementoes for themselves.
Captain Egerton took for himself about half a dozen objects. Admiral Harry Rawson, the commander of the expedition and Sir Ralph Moor, the Consul General of the Niger Coast protectorate, sent to Queen Victoria a pair of exquisitely carved leopards as well as two carved ivory tusks as gifts from the troupe. It was in this context that Captain Walker acquired his own pieces.
While descendants of Sir Henry Gallwey have resorted to making money from the loot of their grandfather, Walker has decided to return to the original owners what his father himself described as ’loot’ in at least three entries in his diary.
This act of honour is the reason Edo people came out in large numbers to show immense gratitude to a man who has followed the path of nobility and conscience. He has resisted the temptation of profiteering from works that were taken forcibly from a people who defended their kingdom with their lives.
One can only hope that other individuals and descendants of British soldiers and particularly, foreign museums and institutions keeping Benin works would return them and in good time too.
Peju Layiwola is Associate Professor of Art History and currently Head of Department of Creative Arts, University of Lagos